Rift: Planes of Telara First Hands On Preview – Part 1

Very recently, Ten Ton Hammer was among the first group of gamers to spend some hands-on time with Rift: Planes of Telara. For this part of the preview, w

Very recently, Ten Ton Hammer was among the first group of gamers to spend some hands-on time with Rift: Planes of Telara. For this part of the preview, we'll explore never-before-seen classes, character creation, and the new starting areas of Shadowlands, Free Marches, and Silverwood. Along the way, we'll delve deeper into concepts like character progression and rifts and discover never before discussed topics like the death penalty, early boss encounters, professions and crafting. All that, plus some close-up impressions of one of Rift's never-before-revealed classes in part 1 of our first ever Rift: Planes of Telara hands-on preview!

New Classes and Character Creation
After settling into our seats at Trion's posh Redwood City studios, the first step was to make our characters. While we were busy toggling and sliding, Trion Creative Director Scott Hartsman took the opportunity to dispel some misconceptions about the game's player factions, specifically the Guardians. In our first Rift interview with Scott, he noted that it isn't as simple as the Guardians are good and the Defiants are evil. Instead, the Guardians serve the gods and the Defiants serve their technology. And both sides view each other as dangerous, if not outright evil.

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Scott took this point further, noting that in the lore, the Guardians are far from a bunch of white hats. Only the smartest and best at killing made their way back from the Shadowlands to take on Ascension at the hands of the gods, regardless of their moral choices in life. The gods simply need an army of the strongest fighters imaginable, and the souls that fell short... well, that's where the game's dual-classing system comes in.  You can tack on these souls to become even more varied and powerful, but more on that below.

In Rift, souls (or classes) are split down the Guardian / Defiant divide. We were introduced to several previously undisclosed souls, primarily on the Guardian side. A few of these classes included the Sentinel (a healer in the classic sense), the Pyromancer (fire-based DPS and direct damage), the Assassin (a poison DoT rogue), the Beastmaster (loads of pets and DPS), and one of my new favorites, the Saboteur (a class that specializes in sneaking up to five bombs onto a target, then detonating them - preferably when the mob is appropriately loaded down with de-buffs).

Your character will look pretty good, especially for a recently dead guy. Character creation is as rich and detailed as you'd expect in a modern RPG, complete with the en vogue triangular sliders for face and body shape, loads of hair styles, et al. The only sour note (and this too seems to be a trend) is the lack of a fantasy name generator. Being that this is how I and a number of my friends found our gamer tags in the first place, I'd hate for Rift to make the omission, but we'll chalk it up to the game being in late alpha.

And that brings me to my next point. Rift is officially in late alpha, but through level 12 (the highest I could get in our five hours with the game) it's more polished than games I've played in late beta. The options included novelties such as adjusting "footstep volume" (strange how much this can grate on you after a while), convincing goblin voiceovers, multiple combat and death animations for enemy groups, and swimming doesn't give you vasoline eyes and the inevitable smeary underwater zone headache. The Rift devs even took a page out of the FPS playbook:  if you start to run short on hitpoints, the screen starts to grey out and your hear your heart beating faster.

The Shadowlands is what Scott called "the island on Telara's River Styx - you're dead but not quite dead." It's your introduction to what your side - Guardian or Defiant - believes, who you are, what your mission is, and what your race has endured. Better yet, Shadowlands isn't a single player tutorial , but a true multiplayer experience hosting up to 30 people from your faction, complete with substantial opportunities to group within your first fifteen minutes of gameplay.

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Satyr Dominator
Shadowlands is darkly gorgeous, heavy in contrasty blacks and purple hues and pierced by otherworldly light. Dead souls fell ominously from the sky like a meteor shower, only to be absorbed by the Shadowlands' soil. Meanwhile, ghastly creatures kept guard over the paths to the purifying shrine (Guardians) or technological wonder (Defiants) that would take my reincarnated character back to Telara.  These creatures were a little terrifying too, especially if you zoomed into first person view. And yes, you can go first-person, and it's one of Rift's many little wonders - fun in snatches but inadvisable when fighting with potential adds beside and behind you. But it's not all darkness and despair; the landscape is full of trees, glens, streambeds, and comfortably twisted takes on a nice enough earthly landscape.

At spawn-in I was told that I have two soul tree points, so I immediately I got a taste of one of Rift's defining systems. Disparaged by some as simply Rift's take on talent trees, having experienced the soul tree firsthand I can say that it's not just a system of enhancements for your abilities. Instead, your choices in the Soul Tree determine what spells you'll have, both directly and indirectly. As a direct damage-dealing pyromancer, for example, I started out by enhancing my fireball and flame dart abilities with soul tree points. So far this sounds pretty familiar, right? But spending those points on unrelated abilities unlocked a new flame armor self-buff in a separate part of the soul tree. A few short levels later I obtained my fourth point which, once spent, granted me a spell which drains charge (charge builds as spells and abilities are used, much like rage with a WoW warrior) to increase the damage output of my fire spells.  It's worth noting that in addition to Soul Tree enhancements, players can spend money at a trainer in town to rank up their spells and abilities too.

Respecing, multiple specs, and the ability to switch out specs  on the fly are a fundamental part of Rift's character development. "People love playing with combinations. The idea is to facilitate it and turn it into fun rather than having people pay obscene amounts of money to respec." -Scott explained that player can buy up to four loadouts to switch between any time they're not in combat. If you notice your healer is having a tough time keeping your tank battle-ready, maybe you can switch to a build that includes minor healing. Or maybe a boss mob has lots of knockback - why not switch to a build with more ranged capability? 270+ combinations result from taking on up to three souls (two plus your starting soul). Won't that variance lead to a balancing nightmare? "We fully expect that people will discover new and exciting things that never occurred to us, and that's ok... that's part of the fun.  We're not trying to overbalance everything and make everyone feel exactly the same."

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Scarred Mire Ranger
Shadowlands also featured the first glimpse of dynamic content in the form of a extra-planar tear; a tear that can quickly grow into a rift. Planar tears are the start of an invasion from the planes of fire, water, life, and death. Minions from these planes seek soulstone, as do the Guardians (who use it to gain power from the gods) and Defiants (who use it to power their technology). Players can use Planar Lure items to enter the rift and fight the baddies before they're ready, but if tears are left unaddressed, tears become rifts, and rifts become huge and terrifying. The plane of fire rift in the Guardian Shadowlands quickly grew to a hissing maelstrom that dominated the skybox in a matter of minutes. Rifts - early ones at least, are soloable, multiple stage battles provide encounter-changing consumables and loot (via a nifty UI frame, I might add, that saves you from having to loot a chest at the Rift site). Rifts, however, have been compared to Warhammer Online's public quests, and not without good reason. But rifts can turn into something much more than simple, localized PQs, but for that you'll have to stay tuned for part 2 of Ten Ton Hammer's hands-on with Rift.

Silverwood and Free Marches
Following a harrowing multi-stage boss encounter at level 5ish, your character will be transported to Telara. For Guardians, this means the lush sylvan dreamscape of Silverwood in the north, for Defiants it means the slightly more foreboding Freemarch area in the south. Advance parties of extra-planar minions stalk both areas, warping and empowering the local flora and fauna to the whims of their masters. Tears and Rifts break out in greater frequency here, and quests begin to revolve around putting an end to the growing distubances.

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Meridian Warlock Purifier
While we weren't able to craft anything usable at this early stage, some of the gathering professions were represented by trainers upon zone in. Butchering, mining, and gathering were among the trainable professions in the Free Marches and Silverwood starting area. Mining nodes randomly spawned atop rock outcroppings and Free Marches, being a bit more stark, is better suited for miners. Silverwood, on the other hand, seemed to contain more gathering nodes, and both areas were rife with animal-like enemies for butchering. Players can train a max of three professions and can retrain anytime, so it's worthwhile to train these professions even if you don't plan on crafting much for the extra soul tree training cash.

I spent the bulk of my hands-on time in Silverwood, playing in an around the level 9+ Argent Glade area deeper in Silverwood, and my Pyromancer continued to develop new skills, including a seven second root (perfect for kiting) and a long-lasting casting circle that amped up my damage spells even more. I evolved a tactic of creating a casting circle then moving forward a short distance and hitting the enemy with a long-cast fireball to pull, then using flame darts as the mob approached. Then I used the fire net ability to hold the mob in place moved back into the casting circle, and hit it with another volley of fireballs and flame darts. It worked pretty well, and I was pleasantly surprised that these kind of tactics were available even before level 10.

I looted my first collection around this time too. Scott explained that Rift will follow the EverQuest II model of collections, meaning that collections aren't just completionist tasks. Well, they are, but collections can be turned in or "stashed" (as Scott put it) for rewards.

It was in Silverwood that I had my first brush with death in Rift. It's been some time since anyone's tinkered with the MMO death mechanic. Rift's take? Once an hour, instead of respawning at a bind point, you can undertake a "Soul Walk." That sounds very nice and peaceful, but really it's eleven seconds of sheer terror as you rise from your corpse and run away from whatever killed you (and other things that want to kill you). Escape, and you're rewarded with no loss of progress or death penalty. In Rift, you're penalized for the crime of dying by surrendering a chunk of your hitpoint and power bars, and one way to gain back your precious pools is to eat special foods. The penalty is punishing but not too punishing, and the Soul Walk reintroduces some corpse run-esque excitement to a tired old mechanic.

Hopes and Fears
The Soul Walk, represents the proper mix of old and new required to successfully innovate on core gameplay. Truthfully, Rift is full of these sorts of minor innovations which add up to major improvement. Rifts resemble PQs but are (as I'll show you in part 2 of this hands-on report) PQs with a purpose. The Soul Tree is much like a talent tree, but offers more (including good reasons to spend points that players typically hoard). Aspects of classes and combat are very familiar, but Rift gives you more options sooner. Best of all, a comfortable level of solo and co-op challenge is back for low level players of a top-tier fantasy MMORPG.

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Skeletal Barbarian
That's not to say that I don't have concerns, primarily with how Rift is interpreted. Trion has garnered top devs from across the industry. More than a few of these devs, such as Producer Adam Gershowitz, came from the Warhammer Online design team, and classes like the Pyromancer and Bladedancer bear a striking resemblance to WAR classes like the Bright Wizard and Blade Master (respectively). Many believe that imbalance (or at least the perception of imbalance) played a big role in WAR's cold reception, and Scott Hartsman has made it known that some imbalance (especially in light of the 270 soul combinations) will be an ongoing part of the game.

While we didn't see an PvP action this time around, we did sneak a peak at UI frame labeled Warfronts. No details were available on this feature, but it seems likely that Rift is also adopting another favorite feature from Warhammer Online: scenarios. If that's the case, players who put a strong emphasis on fair play (or believe themselves to be the sole arbiter of fair play) will get to compare classes fairly early in the game, rather than when the Guardians in the north finally clash with the Defiants in the south at higher levels.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The most promising thing about Rift is how far along the game is even in closed alpha, meaning there will be plenty of time to get all the kinks worked out. And we haven't yet covered some of the more exciting things about PvE, such as what Rifts evolve into and what awaits players in dungeons and instances. This and more in part 2 of our Rift: Planes of Telara First Hands-On Preview!

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