Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning Updated Hands-On - The Elves, New Mastery System, Region-versus-Region Warfare, and M

We get a huge update on this big and ambitious massively multiplayer online role-playing game from EA.

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We hadn't really seen Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning since EA and studio EA Mythic announced last November that it was delaying the game to mid-2008. The reason, of course, was to get more time for building and polishing the ambitious virtual fantasy world. EA hopes that Warhammer Online will appeal to some of the millions of World of Warcraft subscribers out there, given that this massively multiplayer online role-playing game is set in the colorful universe established by the popular Warhammer Fantasy miniatures game. We recently had a chance to visit EA Mythic's offices in Fairfax, Virginia, to check out never-before-seen aspects of Warhammer Online, including a first glimpse at the high elves and dark elves as well as large-scale, region-versus-region combat.

The last six months have been very busy for the team at EA Mythic. Not only are the developers producing tons of content, but they've also been conducting a lengthy beta test, which highlighted some things that needed altering. But before we get to those, let's kick it off with a look at the elves. In earlier previews of Warhammer Online, the elves were nowhere to be found, mainly because that part of the game wasn't ready yet. Now it is, and as creative director Paul Barnett explained, the elves' conflict will revolve around the idea of civil war. In the distant past more than 10,000 years ago, the elves all lived peacefully in the region of Ulthuan. However, a schism occurred where the dark elves were sent into exile. Elves can essentially live forever, and as such the dark elves have been nursing a grudge for a very long time. Now they're launching an invasion of Ulthuan, landing their gigantic black arks--huge floating cities--on the shore and disgorging armies of warriors, hydras, harpies, and even some dragons.

This is a dark-elf warship, and that gigantic thing behind it is one of the dreaded black arks.
This is a dark-elf warship, and that gigantic thing behind it is one of the dreaded black arks.

You'll actually get to see the invasion unfold in the game, which is one of the highlights of the dark-elf campaign. Your job at the beginning of the campaign is to help clear a beachhead for the invading armies. Think of it sort of like the landing scene in Saving Private Ryan, except this isn't France. One of the dark elves' three black arks fills up the horizon; it's basically the size of Manhattan. Meanwhile, your job is to go on a series of quests to clear out some of the defending high elves. This is a task made easier by the map system, which highlights the area of the map you need to run around in to fulfill a quest. Everything ties into the wonderful tome of knowledge, an exhaustive and compressive encyclopedia that also doubles as a quest-tracking system of sorts, as well as a way of tracking achievements in the game.

You won't get very far into the dark-elf campaign before you run into one of the many public quests being built into Warhammer Online. Public quests are one of the highlights of the game; the idea is that you can quickly gather up a group of strangers and embark on a mission together, rather than having to spend a lot of time with your friends and guildmates coordinating a schedule to play together. In this public quest, the mission is to take out the defenders of a high-elf tower, including the noble sun dragon. The dark elves have a dragon of their own, and they're busy battling it out atop the tower, but the high elves aren't making things easy due to their magic users firing spells at the black dragon. Your job: wipe out the high elves, a task that requires you to kill a couple of waves of them within a certain time limit. If you successfully pull that off, you get to face off with the dragon itself. It sounds as if public quests will pop up regularly throughout the campaign. For instance, much deeper on, as the dark elves are literally knocking on one of the towering gates that protect the high elves' inner kingdom, you'll participate in another public quest as you battle in the killing zone in front of the gate.

Although we didn't get to see the high elves' campaign, we understand that it's intertwined with that of the dark elves. For instance, in the dark-elf campaign, you're leading the invasion from one of the black arks. In the high-elf campaign, you'll be battling to stop another black ark from reaching shore. The campaigns will then intersect at various points, letting you see the same event from different perspectives, but they're not going to be mirrors of one another the entire way.

The dark-elf campaign will let you fight alongside hydras and dragons as you teach those haughty high elves a lesson.
The dark-elf campaign will let you fight alongside hydras and dragons as you teach those haughty high elves a lesson.

Next up is the character system, which has gotten a big overhaul, particularly with the addition of what are called masteries. Testing showed that players wanted more depth when it came to characters. For instance, take the bright wizard, one of the human classes shown in many of the early previews. The bright wizard lit things on fire, and that was basically it. So the designers went back and revamped all of the classes in the game by adding three mastery paths for each one. Masteries are fields that you can specialize in, with the kicker that you can only level up enough to max out in two out of three masteries. (It will be possible to reallocate your mastery points in the game should you want to explore different fields.)

With masteries, you can customize the gameplay to your style, and it also adds a reward system of sorts, the more you invest in certain masteries. So instead of everyone playing the same type of bright-wizard character, some players can opt to focus on the incineration mastery, which specializes in direct damage spells, or attacks. Meanwhile, the immolation mastery focuses on damage-over-time skills and debuffs (temporarily stripping an opponent of protections and bonuses). Finally, there's the conflagration mastery, which are skills that focus on large scale, area-of-effect spells, such as rain of fire. When you invest in a single mastery, you get most of its abilities automatically. Those abilities become more powerful the more you invest into the mastery, and you can unlock new tactics and abilities.

RPGing in the City

Next, we went on a tour of Altdorf, the capitol of the Empire, a sprawling burg dominated by palaces and statues. The tour showed how Altdorf will be more than a stopping point where you simply pick up new quests from characters or barter with the local merchants. The city is jam-packed with possible adventures, and there will be plenty of quests to be unlocked in Altdorf the farther you get into the campaign. For instance, take the local inns. They serve as the game's auction houses--and one nice detail is that even though there are multiple inns to prevent overcrowding, they all share the same auctions--but venture into their basements and you may find an entrance to a dungeon. A busted sewer grate might lead somewhere interesting. Or you can peruse the wanted posters for a potential quest.

This is the market square of Altdorf, in the center of the city. There's going to be a really large amount of content in Altdorf alone.
This is the market square of Altdorf, in the center of the city. There's going to be a really large amount of content in Altdorf alone.

Your character will have a city rating, which reflects what content in a city is available to you. Quite a number of doors will remain locked until you reach the higher city-rating levels. More importantly, the cities can change the deeper you get into the game. For instance, if you're playing as an Empire character, the city will come under siege itself, and you'll have to rally the defenders and save what you can as buildings burn around you. Even the Emperor Karl Franz will be endangered. It all promises to be quite grand and epic and, the developers hope, exciting. It's safe to say that you'll spend a considerable amount of time exploring the many ins and outs of cities like Altdorf in the game.

Next up is to RVR, or region-versus-region conflict, which is one of the big selling points of Warhammer Online. Most games in the genre rely on PVP, or player-versus-player battling, and there will be PVP in Warhammer Online. What RVR does is embrace the "war is everywhere" concept in Warhammer. This is a struggle between the greenskins (the orcs and their allies) versus the dwarves, the clash between empire and chaos, the civil war between high and dark elves. And it will be played on battlefields where guilds of players can try to seize and hold fortified keeps that play key roles in the campaign. A keep is sort of like a small castle, and the goal is to either seize a keep if you don't hold it, or defend it against all comers. This will involve a siege, in which the attackers try to gain entrance to the keep and slay the keep lord, a hero character defended by four elite guards. On the other hand, the defenders will have their own siege weapons atop the keep, and must try to defend the keep lord at all costs. The designers envision almost daily struggles for each keep, though some will be easier to take than others. We saw one keep located in the middle of the wilderness, almost like an outpost. Another was heavily fortified and protected by curtain walls.

Sieging sounds pretty interesting in that almost anyone can do it, especially if you've played a golf game on a PC or console. Siege weapons such as catapults will have swing-meter systems, just like in golf games, and they will help determine the accuracy and effectiveness of each volley of the siege engine. (We didn't ask if the devs borrowed the code from the Tiger Woods team.) If you're not in the mood to hurl rocks, you can assist a siege in different ways. Sure, you could always kill defenders, but there are also battlefield objectives that can be seized. Control of these objectives might make the task for your team easier. For instance, one battlefield objective will reduce the number of computer-controlled guards patrolling the area outside the keep.

The Temple of Isha is one of the battlegrounds for the scenarios in the game.
The Temple of Isha is one of the battlegrounds for the scenarios in the game.

If you're looking for something a bit more recreational than RVR, then there's always some good, old-fashioned PVP in the form of scenarios. These are battles that let you jump in quickly and have fun. For instance, there's a king of the hill match where the objective is to capture a spot on the map. The kicker is that the capture point jumps around every few minutes, so if you're ensconced atop the objective and are defending it successfully, you'll have to get up and run to the new position when it shifts. Another mode is murder ball, where the goal is to rack up as many kills--or points--as possible in a given amount of time. There's a murder ball in the middle of the map, and if you possess it, your kills are worth double points. Another way to gain points, though, is to capture and hold a position on the map. The longer you hold it, the more points you accrue.

The team at EA Mythic spent all day showing off so many facets of the game, from the masteries for many of the character classes to the armor and dye permutations that let you customize your character, and much more. It was a lot to take in, but it underscores what a massive undertaking Warhammer Online is. This is going to be EA's shot at trying to grab some of World of Warcraft's market share, and the company has some great ideas and features in store. Additional months of work and polish await, but the game is coming together quickly now, and we'll see what happens when it launches later this year.

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