Massively multiplayer games originally captured players' imagination by offering a persistent and dangerous world full of monsters to be slain alongside other players, recovering treasure, and gaining experience levels along the way. But increasingly, players sought the most challenging and exciting quarry of all: other players, in competitive player-versus-player (PVP) battles. This wasn't an accident; games like Mythic Entertainment's Dark Age of Camelot, which focused on team-based "realm versus realm" battles, helped give players a taste for zapping enemy archers with their wizards' magic spells. The studio, now known as EA Mythic, is currently working on its next PVP-focused game, Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, a game that will let you take up the standard of the fantastic armies in Games Workshop's Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play universe. We recently had a chance to try out some of the early game for both the chaos and Empire factions, as well as dive into some more rounds of PVP in some down-and-dirty orc-versus-dwarf battles.
The Empire faction is essentially the standard race of humans, though according to Warhammer lore, the Empire represents "humanity on the brink of extinction"--a nation of paranoid people besieged by orcs and dark elves on the outside, but fighting the corrupting influence of chaos (which causes humans to eventually become tentacled, three-eyed lunatics) on the inside. Since the Warhammer universe is all about, well, war, all human characters are being designed to hold their own in battle, even the faction's healer character. The Empire, like the game's other factions, will offer four different character classes when the game launches: the knight of the blazing sun, a heavily armored class that specializes in dishing out (and absorbing) melee damage; the witch hunter, a class that focuses on dealing lots of damage up close; the warpriest, a melee character class that attacks enemies with hammers to earn "faith," a magical energy that can heal nearby teammates; and the bright wizard, the humans' ranged damage-dealing class, which we had a chance to try out for ourselves.
In the early beta version of the game we played, the humans begin their lives in what appears to be a run-down village, the kind you'd see in medieval Europe, including patrolling pikemen in armor, peasants hiding in their hovels, and half of the village on fire. All starting areas will be under siege, and your character's nation will sit right next to your enemies'--so as a new human bright wizard, we found ourselves under attack by the forces of chaos immediately. The starting quests in the Empire zone required our bright wizard to rally peasants to war, rescue them from their burning houses, and slay chaos lieutenants before they could open fire on the village with hellcannons, the fearsome chaos artillery.
We then participated in a "public quest," one of the game's innovative cooperative quests that don't require players to belong to the same adventuring party. Public quests currently bring up a separate quest log in the upper corner of the screen that keeps track of how far along everyone in the area has come. The early public quest in the human area culminates in all players battling a chaos giant, a towering monstrosity that was brought down only after a handful of bright wizards zapped it repeatedly with every spell in their possession. Public quests apparently gain you "influence" with local officials, and with enough influence built up from the various public quests in any given area, you'll be able to select basic, advanced, and eventually, elite quest rewards from that area's magistrate. "Boss" monsters from public quests will also drop exceptionally good loot; exactly who gets that loot will be determined by, among other things, your character's contribution to completing the quest. Public quests will cycle regularly, so if you miss out the first time, you'll be able to stick around and try it again if you care to.
The bright wizard class itself is focused on using magical fire to burn enemies to the ground, using a variety of sorcerous abilities that directly damage enemies or gradually injure them over time. In addition to basic magic spells, bright wizards, like the other classes in the game, can earn "tactics," which provide additional advantages in battle when equipped before the fight, and "morale" abilities, which can be earned in sequence the longer you fight enemies. The game will attempt to deemphasize having characters of a specific level ("level 60 wizards" and such), and will instead give your characters ranks (apprentice, journeyman, expert, and so on) whereby your character will advance through certain tiers, picking up new skills, morale abilities, and tactics. Apparently, instead of grinding away at experience levels, your character will constantly gain new abilities. As we saw later in our PVP matches, your characters will eventually learn more abilities than can be easily readied, so there will be an element of preparation and strategy involved in those as well, which we'll get into later.
After trying out the Empire, we had a chance to change sides and play as a chaos character. As EA Mythic representatives explained, the chaos isn't necessarily "hellish" or satanic, but rather random and selfish. Chaos characters will follow the dictates of one of the four chaos deities of the Warhammer universe, Tzeentch, a god of sorcery and manipulation, which seemed to fit best for a game where the forces of chaos wield magic as well as swords and shields. Again, like the other factions, the armies of chaos will allow for four character classes at the game's launch: the chosen, a heavy-duty melee warrior class that can take punishment as well as dish it out; the zealot, a healer class that can also blast enemies with magic spells; an unrevealed class that focuses on dealing melee damage; and the magus, the chaos armies' full-time sorcerers that will ride floating discs into battle and use all sorts of nasty eldritch powers to weaken their enemies before blasting them to bits.
We had a chance to try out the magus character class, which is based out of a chaos camp on the borders of human territory. The chaos faction doesn't have much in the way of buildings and roads, since it prefers to corrupt already-existing lands, turning trees into clumps of tentacles and causing eyeballs to sprout out of solid stone. In this case, chaos has arrived in Empire territory to lay siege to its villages. The early chaos quests include ransacking a tomb for corpse parts to fuel hellcannons, killing off human guards, and, of course, burning down their houses by igniting piles of kindling. We then tried out one of the early public quests for chaos characters, which involves harvesting souls from an Empire graveyard, causing angry human reinforcements and eventually a small contingent of bright wizards (and a summoned beast) to attack. In the case of both the Empire and chaos areas, it was easy to get off to a brisk start, picking up quests from clearly marked characters with clear instructions and our choice of quest rewards. The game's interface includes a full world map marked with quest givers, as well as a minimap with compass, along with the "tome of knowledge," an expanded player journal that keeps track of your character's quests, monsters you've fought, items you've found, locations you've explored, and so on.
Single-player content seems to be coming along well enough, but the real star of our play session was expanded PVP combat. We had previously played an orcs-versus-dwarves skirmish with nothing but melee fighters, but this time around, we were able to jump into battles with all four greenskin classes and all four dwarf classes, and try out their abilities using high-level characters. In our first match, we played as a dwarf ironbreaker--the faction's heavy-duty melee fighter who uses "grudges" born against specific enemies to deal extra damage to them in battle, and uses shields to not only defend themselves, but also to charge forward at enemies, knocking them flat and immobilizing them. Though you might expect the ironbreaker to mainly serve a defensive role in battle, the character seems to serve two purposes: one, to defend your faction's fragile runepriests, and two, to aggressively use its various abilities to slow or temporarily stun fleeing enemies. While we unfortunately didn't get a chance to coordinate much with our teammates in our warm-up rounds, it became very clear that a very key part of Warhammer Online's PVP strategy will be about jockeying for position. This is because the game actually models geometric collision, which is a fancy way of saying that characters can't walk through each other. Therefore, PVP battles seem to share something in common with tackle football (the American kind): In order to get at the vulnerable quarterback, you need to get past a couple of big, thick-necked linemen. So, smart dwarf ironbreakers will insert themselves within chokepoints as a buffer between the enemy and their weaker allies, though as we found, they can swing a pretty mean axe and rack up a good number of kills, too...especially if they can get near the goblins.
In our later rounds, we actually played as a goblin character--specifically, the squig herder (the greenskins' archer class that can also summon pet "squigs," nasty, stupid little creatures with very sharp teeth). The greenskin faction has two orc frontline fighters and two goblin support classes, the shaman and the squig herder. And as we found out for ourselves, goblins don't last long against angry dwarf fighters. At this time, the squig herder's abilities seem evenly divided between various types of archery abilities (such as an immobilizing shot that briefly paralyzes enemies, and a poison arrow that temporarily poisons them) and squig-related abilities (such as summoning melee-focused or spike-shooting squigs, or devouring them to gain a last-ditch health boost--or getting devoured by a giant squig and using it as suit of armor). As a squig herder, it behooves you to get far away from the big, axe-wielding dwarves, preferably onto a parapet or raised platform, and rain death down on them from above. By carefully picking our spots (and trying to stay out of sight, in some cases), we were able to land some key shots on our enemies, rooting them to the spot so that they couldn't flee the big orc bruisers on our team.
Successfully scoring kills earns "renown" points that entitle your character to rewards later on, though PvP will be integral to the entire game of Warhammer Online--not just incidental, hit-and-run skirmishes, but full-on campaigns, along with self-contained in "scenario" battles. In scenarios, you and your countrymen will fight over specific objectives to win battles; in campaigns, you'll fight over contested areas, earning points by completing objectives and killing off your enemies. Scoring enough points will eventually earn you control of that contested area, pushing the enemy nation back until you can gain entry to their capital city--and then the burning and pillaging begins in an epic "raid" encounter that culminates in you and your teammates capturing the enemy ruler for a set period of time. Scenario battles are planned to last for a good evening's worth of play; campaign battles are estimated to last for a solid weekend. In all cases, EA Mythic is building the game around fast-paced, satisfying battles that can be fought and won without requiring a time commitment of dozens of hours on end.
From what we've seen, the game seems to be coming along extremely well. Now that we've been able to see and play more of the game, it's even clearer that Warhammer Online has a ton of promise both as an easy-to-pick-up game for beginners looking to kill a few monsters, and as a hardcore, squig-eat-goblin competitive game that will offer fast-paced, satisfying PVP battles. The game is scheduled for release later this year.