A First Look at Rift: Planes of Telara

Rift: Planes of Telara has done some growing up since last we saw the game at E3 2009.

Rift: Planes of Telara has done some growing up since last we saw the game at E3 2009. With a new name and new focus, this love letter to core MMO gamers was re-revealed to the press late last week in San Francisco, just miles from the Trion Redwood City studios where Studio Head Scott Hartsman (former Senior Producer on EverQuest 2) and a large cast of developers with 27 launched MMORPGs between them prepare the game for a targeted 2011 launch.

If we gave this screencap an artsy title, it might be something like "Bahmi Reaver in Silverwood"

Hartsman and company did more than change the name, they changed the overall focus of the game. Sub-classes and the ability of one character to fill any role had been major talking points at the E3 2009 reveal. Lack of a catchy subtitle aside, according to Scott, the moniker "Heroes of Telara" had several problems. For one, not everyone wants to be a hero. In Rift: Planes of Telara, players can choose between the idealistic Guardians and pragmatic Defiants. Guardians are more the archetypical heroes who remain devoted to the gods in the face of the planar invasions that threaten to rip Telara apart. Defiants, on the other hand, blame the gods for Telara's problems and feel that Telarans must rely on their own devises.

Another problem was that "Heroes of Telara" didn't convey a sense of the overarching conflict in Telara. Rifts , which Scott Hartsman described as "massively social experiences," are invasion points from the six planes of Telara. More than a few developers on the Rift team, like Adam Gershowitz, are Warhammer Online vets, so no one shied away from comparisons to WAR's public quest concept. Like PQs, rift battles occur in stages . But unlike PQs, rifts appear randomly around the world (visible on the in-game map). The basic rifts are also soloable but scale to the number of players participating. Given time, rifts will open of their own accord and offer players a tougher challenge than if players had opened the rift and taken the battle to the invading plane. Furthermore, if players failed to seal these rifts and too many appear in a certain sized area, monsters from the invading plane could begin to mount an offense, leading to perhaps an even more sinister extension of the dynamic environments concept.

Silverwood (left) and Silverwood after a rift from the plane of life is torn open (right).

But describing rifts as simply a transplanted public quest system would be to sell the concept short. The game set store at E3 last year on the concept of dynamic environments, and as one extension of that concept, the locus of the rift takes on the aspect of the invading plane. For example, the rifts we saw were all of the Plane of Life variety. When the rift was torn open, vast carnivorous-looking plants hanging down stretched down and an ominously dark green pall overshadowed the mostly cheery, bright palette imbued environs of Silverwood.

Click play to watch the newly unveiled Rift: Planes of Telara trailer:


Improvements on the PQ concept weren't just skin deep. Puzzle elements, such as clickable mushrooms which stun enemies, will add another dimension to rift gameplay. Players won't need to wait for the endgame to encounter massively sized enemies that represent a tactical challenge, such as a giant treant that served as a final boss in one teen-level rift we toured. But perhaps best of all: rewards are all about participation - the more you do, the more you get, regardless of how you "place" in comparison to other players. Forget reward chests too; loot can be retrieved at any time, meaning that if you're running back from the spawn point when the final stage ends, you'll still get your rift rewards via the user interface.

For the moment, the designers kept mum on a faction system or class specs tied to rift types or even what or who is causing the other planes to invade. But as for whether the rift concept is considered level-up content, an extension of the quest system, or a way to garner good loot, the answer seemed to be all of the above. We had every indication that we still have a lot to learn about rifts, and the rift concept is such a pervasive and integral part of the game that, as Scott Hartsman pointed out, it's now quite literally the name of the game.

One thing that rifts are not is a replacement for instanced dungeons. Adam took me into one unique instance, Four Seasons, that awaits players in their teens. Realm of the Fae is an airy outdoor deungone that progresses from tier to seasonal tier - Spring to Summer to Fall to finally Winter, where Fae Lord Twyll, an evil emissary from the Plane of Life, awaited us. The designers pointed out that each dungeon would have common sense exit points; that backtracking through an empty dungeon wouldn't be part of instance design in Rift: Planes of Telara.

Character creation in Rift is both streamlined or nuanced as you wish, with no stat point assignment decisions to muddy the primordial waters. Players first select whether they'll side with the idealistic Guardians or the thoroughly practical Defiants, then choose their race, customize their character's appearance and facial attributes using the en-vogue triangular slider that adds another dimension to slider bars. For the demo, we were shown the High Elves, a lanky Defiant-aligned race that certainly didn't come from Felwithe.

Two Defiant classes at level 20 - A Bladedancer (left) and a female and male Reaver (right).

Finally you'll choose your class, which was yet another subject that Trion is playing close to the vest on at the moment. If you're bored of WoW's narrow take on the class numbers and variety, Rift might be for you. The class list for the Defiants boasted nearly a dozen classes. We did sneak a peek at two classes, however - the tankish, sword-and-shield wielding Reaver and the roguish (but stealth spurning) dual-wielding Bladedancer. Both were Defiant classes, and at level 20 had less than a full bar of spells and abilities, which led me to wonder if spell and ability design was WoW-ishly deep than EQ2-ishly wide. Adam assured me that Rift wouldn't be a 3 button mashing MMO, however, but this question will probably have to wait until we can get our grubby hands on a beta build.

This screenshot of the Arcane Library shows the attention to graphical detail in Rift: Planes of Telara.

Graphically, mobs, characters, and the setting we saw was designed with obvious care, and an excellent example of the "stylized realism" we hear so much about - sort of an idealized photorealism rendered in "bright palette" colors. Hartsman described Rift as one of the first true high-definition MMORPGs, and while "HD" is largely open to interpretation, the character models and zone environments looked impressively crisp. So crisp and clean that Rift would be an ideal candidate for 3D, should Trion wish to open up that option. Animations are another place where Rift shines. Movement and combat is incredibly fluid, and with a reported 10,000 animations in the game, every type of mob dies in several different ways. It's one of those small things that tends to make a big impression as you play. Other essential MMO features - PvP, crafting, a player-to-player economy, were hinted at as well, but not discussed in detail.

Detractors might say that the fantasy MMORPG niche is thoroughly saturated. But for a number of "core" MMO gamers that spurn WoW and who quickly grew disenchanted with games like Vanguard and Aion , there's cause for excitement here. Between a known cadre of developers that has definitely paid their dues, a diverse cast of classes and races, a visually arresting world, crisp graphics, and, best of all, a well-polished first reveal (or re-reveal, if you prefer), Rift: Planes of Telara definitely has the potential to become the kind of fantasy MMORPG we'd hoped so many half-baked MMORPGs in recent years would eventually resolve into.

More coverage from Ten Ton Hammer coming soon, but in the meantime, learn more at http://www.riftgame.com

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