Massively multiplayer games are all about fairy tales and make-believe, right? You create your individual character, usually some kind of pointy-eared elf; pick up a virtual sword or spell book; and start pummeling some virtual skeletons until they drop measly virtual copper pieces. But developer Mythic Entertainment is working with tabletop-game publisher Games Workshop to create an online game based in the dark and gritty world of Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play--a strategic game that has traditionally involved two things: some 25 years of fantasy-fiction lore, which is characterized by vicious battles and dark humor, and moving painstakingly painted pewter figurines across a board.
Yes, there will be elves, dwarves, and orcs, but these won't be the cheery, sparkly fey folk from recent motion pictures--they'll be the angry and violent (and possibly drunk) denizens of Warhammer. Rather than starting their careers in homey, safe towns, new characters in Warhammer Online will start their lives on battle lines strewn with corpses. And rather than spending most of their adventuring careers doing player-versus-environment tasks, such as hunting monsters, so they can eventually become strong enough to fight challenging battles against other players, they'll instead be able to jump right into head-to-head, player-versus-player competition more or less from the get-go.
Fans of the Warhammer campaign setting will already be familiar with the game's starting six races--those being orcs, dwarves, high elves, dark elves, humans, and chaos--as well as the grim fantasy world they inhabit. Mythic apparently chose these six races for the game's launch because they represent three of the most long-standing rivalries in the setting (orcs versus dwarves, high elves versus dark elves, and humans versus chaos).
And true to the Warhammer setting, the game will have a highly stylized, exaggerated look to it. Mythic has decided to err on the side of using simply texture-mapped graphics and going big on huge environments and buildings (such as a gigantic goblin sawmill, complete with an equally gigantic moving sawblade running up and down its height), as well as detailed characters. In true Warhammer fashion, players will be able to adorn their characters with layer upon layer of accoutrements--for instance, orc warrior characters will wear heavy, ramshackle suits of armor, onto which they can graft spikes and trophy racks of skulls and dwarf beards.
Interestingly, orcs in particular will look distinct from each other, and from other races, since the further orc characters advance, the taller and bulkier they'll become (though warrior characters from all races will apparently become more muscular over time). Developer Mythic, the creator of the competitive-PVP-focused Dark Age of Camelot, feels that it'll be much more important to be able to quickly identify characters from a distance, so that smaller, younger orcs can marvel at the size of their accomplished brethren, while younger dwarves will know who to steer clear of. Yet all characters will be expressively animated with full facial animations that convey a range of moods (such as angry, sad, angry, happy, angry, afraid, and really angry), and the game will feature an animated face portrait of your character onscreen so that you can see your own character's range of emotions, rather than staring at your character's backside as they run from point A to point B.
These racial pairings represent not only the first immediate conflict new players will face, but also a loose alliance between the forces of order (humans, dwarves, and high elves) and the forces of chaos (chaos, orcs, and dark elves). Fortunately, you won't be stuck fighting the same enemies forever (unless you want to), since you'll be able to visit other fronts in the war using safe in-game travel systems.
All races will have four basic character archetypes available to them in two general flavors: combat and sorcery, though not everything in the game will be completely symmetrical. For instance, the more-balanced dwarves will have two combat classes and two magic-using classes--the heavy-armor-wearing ironbreaker and the offense-minded hammerer, along with the runepriest healer and the technology-focused engineers (who will build rifles, siege equipment, and larger, crazier contraptions). On the other hand, the brutal orcs will likely end up with three combat classes and one magic-using class (available only to their goblin buddies...yes, goblins will be playable). But the studio isn't trying to make a completely equitable game where all sides have equal analogs; the developers are happy to keep things a bit asymmetrical, as long as everything stays balanced and enjoyable. This also means staying true to Warhammer canon and including no orc females.
Still, no matter what path you take, you'll spend much of your time in the game neck-deep in the war effort. We had a chance to take a look at a few of the game's early orc and dwarf areas, and found them to be on the borders of contested territory. Yes, there will be friendly characters who will give you quests, but Mythic will attempt to make even those different--characters of different races will be able to complete certain quests differently, and design manager Paul Barnett suggests that, true to form, some races (like the snobby high elves) may turn their noses up at quests that seem beneath them. Players that don't feel like going into PVP will be able to contribute to the cause by way of "competitive PVE" quests, which will be broadcast to all players in an area. For instance, dwarf players might be tasked with bringing their race's lifeblood (ale, of course) to a squadron of wounded dwarf allies, while orc players might be tasked with killing those wounded dwarves. Several of these quests will apparently have a tug-of-war effect; even though players won't be fighting each other face-to-face, they'll be able to perform group quests that can still beat out the enemy in some way.
Regardless, as Mythic president Mark Jacobs suggests, Warhammer Online will be "a player-versus-player game that supports player-versus-environment play." New orc players should expect to start out in breeding pits, having just defeated their peers for the right to emerge into the world and start pounding on stuff, and find themselves in a war camp lined with corpses of dead dwarves getting picked at by crows (and the occasional live dwarf captured and humorously used over and over as a dangling counterweight at an orc forge).
In fact, all starting areas will be built around "epicenters"--key points of interest that can be the starting point for major quests, but they'll also all be very close to contested areas where players will be able to encounter other characters from hostile races very early on. However, these contested areas are being designed so that PVP battles, which can be intimidating for newer players, will usually take place a safe distance away from regular foot traffic, and will be completely optional...but very visible. Players will be able to play through their entire careers without participating in PVP battles, but it's Mythic's hope that, by making PVP so accessible (and by including quests that pass close to PVP territory and, in some cases, require PVP participation), players will want to jump into the fray early on. You'll apparently be able to play out your entire career as a PVP-only character; according to Mythic, you'll gain experience and items through PVP participation and become as advanced and as wealthy as players who exclusively hunt monsters and perform quests.
We were able to get a brief hands-on demonstration of PVP combat ourselves, though only prepared orcish and dwarven melee characters were available. Combat still seems pretty early, though it could be very promising considering the intriguing systems that Mythic is designing for it. Yes, the game does have an auto-attack feature that lets your character initiate and automatically keep pounding on enemies (so that you can have some breathing room to chat with your teammates), as well as a series of skills you'll be able to use from a bar of hotkeys.
Your character will have two other sets of abilities: tactics and morale abilities. Tactics will be specific abilities that you'll gain as your character advances in different ways. Mythic is keeping the details on character advancement under wraps at the moment, though there will apparently be different skill sets each character can specialize in, and over the course of your career, you'll constantly unlock new skills, abilities, and even "emote" animations. These tactics will be loaded into a "strategy" hotkey bank; some may take up two or three slots, others only one. The idea is to plan out which tactics you want to bring into battle before you get down and dirty. Morale abilities can be acquired through regular advancement and by specializing, and they work based on a meter that gradually fills up in battle (and empties out quickly once the battle is over). You'll be able to access "cheaper" abilities that cost less morale, but part of Warhammer Online's combat strategy will be deciding whether or not to use lower-level abilities or to hold off until your meter fills up completely so that you can unleash your most devastating morale ability.
Even though the game has been in full production for only about seven months, it seems to have a solid foundation and is in the good hands of a developer with a lot of experience designing PVP games. If all goes according to plan, Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning will offer plenty of different things for explorers, socializers, and achievers to do, while also offering the most comprehensive PVP experience in an online role-playing game to date. The game is scheduled for release next year.