It's a finished product. How many times have you said that about a just-released massively multiplayer online game? In a genre dominated by disastrous bugs and missing features at launch, Rift stands out for the amazing feat of being complete right out of the box. As you play Rift, rarely do you say "If it only let me do this," or "It really needs that." Sure, there is room to grow; there always is in an online role-playing game. But even now, there is little to stand between you and your questing, save those pesky rifts that open up within the colorful fantasy world of Telara and pour invading forces onto the ground. Rift sets a new standard for MMOG launch quality, if not for originality. In fact, developer Trion Worlds plucked familiar facets from other similar games and did so blatantly enough that you can't chalk up the similarities as existing simply because the games share the same genre. But by combining these facets into a unified experience and adding fresh mechanics to them, Rift proves that not all games must reinvent the wheel to be truly great.
Those aforementioned rifts are the spice in this welcoming comfort food. As you roam about the world of Telara--completing quests and trotting to dungeons--great dimensional portals open in the firmament. The sky darkens, gushing water or purple goo erupts under your feet, and creatures spawn forth in a wink of bright light. If you defeat those meanies, one group after another spawns in until a hulking final boss appears. Such visitations from the otherworldly planes are Rift's bread and butter. Nearby players converge to fight these demons and reap rewards of currency and helpful items, and the game easily groups them together into ad hoc raid groups. Rifts open seemingly anywhere--possibly even right above you. The first time such an event occurs in your immediate vicinity, it is spectacular. Should an earth rift appear, the crackling and crunching of stone under your feet is awe inspiring. When a death rift erupts, the violent violet tentacles reaching down from the heavens look as if they might snatch you up and feed you to the rift's gaping maw.
Regions aren't limited to a single rift; often, many rifts will be open at a given time. They frequently give rise to invasions--roving groups of creatures that descend upon local villages and need to be defeated. You might be questing peacefully on your own or with friends, only to have a marauding band of demons trudge by you. Depending on your current focus, you might welcome the opportunity to bond with local players and pelt these invaders with spells and arrows, or you might resent the fact that your goals were interrupted by powerful monsters capable of destroying your lonesome self in a few short seconds. Nevertheless, you'll probably be inclined to stick with your compatriots and roam from one hot spot to the next, temporarily ridding the region of invaders and closing rifts. Nothing beats galloping on your fantastical gazelle or oversized tortoise toward the dreadful portal clouding the horizon.
Rifts and invasions are the best part of the game and a natural evolution of the public quests that Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning delivered. The key difference is that you don't go to the quest--the quest descends upon the land, bringing local players together long enough to foster a sense of community that even most solitary questers can appreciate. When you come near players and groups in battle, you are automatically prompted to join them. When the job is complete, you can go your separate ways or stick together to take on quests meant for small parties, such as taking down the lumbering giants that meander about the local mountain ridges. In any case, the large-scale skirmishes against the most colossal bosses are dazzling to watch and fun to participate in, even when the game's normally solid frame rate drops as a result of all this spellcasting and swordfighting.
Underneath all of this "rifting" is a fairly standard online RPG in which you take quests from non-player characters, kill and collect things on their behalf, and return for a reward. All the while, you gain experience that boosts you ever onward to the level cap of 50. This aspect of the game is solid but unexciting, throwing plenty of talk about planes and evil gods at you but rarely giving you a sense of the bigger picture. It would have been easier to invest in all of this unfamiliar lore if the game spent some time developing it, but when you first begin, the game drops a whole lot in your lap at once. The opening tutorial has you hitting the ground running, which makes for an exciting introduction, but it comes at the expense of allowing you to wallow in this new virtual world. You're more likely to see quests as a reason to go do battle and explore Telara than as a way to learn more about the events that caused this world to be torn apart. There is comfort in questing, as most MMOG players understand, but a little oomph to the writing and a little time spent acclimating players could have elevated Rift even further.
It's in the questing, as well as other ways, in which Rift proves itself to be a derivative MMOG delivered with uncommon excellence. If you've played Warhammer Online, you'd be forgiven for seeing the immediate resemblance; after all, both games use the same graphics engine and sport similar art styles. If you've ventured in World of Warcraft's Azeroth, the art will also seem familiar, as will most elements of the interface. This is just as well; refugees from other fantasy games will feel right at home. Though in the initial hours, it's hard not to wonder if you've left one game for a carbon copy. If you dig a little deeper, however, you will find that despite the structural and visual similarities, Rift differentiates itself just enough to feel contemporary--and not just because of its rifts and invasions.
Character development is the other area in which Rift excels. You first choose one of two factions--the self-righteous Guardians or the skeptical Defiant--along with one of three races. Then, you choose a calling: mage, warrior, rogue, or cleric. Your choices aren't done here, however, for you also equip up to three souls at a time; that is, three subclasses from nine available choices. Nor are you stuck with the same three. As you perform quests, you earn access to more souls and can mix and match them, saving up to four various character builds (called roles) for easy access. (Note that there is a cost to purchase additional roles.) The elaborate skill tree that you spend points on from level to level is initially daunting as a result of all these choices, and it's hard to know how best to develop your character. The good news is that NPC trainers allow you to improve spells you already own, so at least as far as player-versus-environment combat is concerned, you are unlikely to feel underpowered.
Such flexibility cantake a toll in player-versus-player combat, where imbalances are inevitable, given the many combinations of skills and powers. Nevertheless, even unusual builds have a place in PVP warfronts and in other circumstances. For example, your squishy mage may specialize in damage, but with enough points in necromancy, you can sacrifice your own health to replenish a teammate's. You may not think of the rogue as the best class for soaking up damage in a tank role, yet the riftstalker soul grants you excellent tanking capabilities. In big group dungeons too, such as a mine crawling with the undead, you might find value in abilities you rarely use while questing. Meanwhile, PVP battles are clever variations on the usual Capture the Flag and Conquest modes. For instance, in the Black Garden warfront, teams must retrieve and hang on to an artifact for as long as possible. However, the team that stays near the center of the map gains more points. Furthermore, the artifact leeches health from the player holding it, which adds another tactical element to consider. (And one that keeps your healer busy.)
Outside of questing, rifts, and dungeons, you can spend time collecting materials and crafting them into gear and helpful baubles. You can take on up to three different professions, though crafting is uneventful, much as it is in other standard MMOGs. You simply visit a loom, furnace, or some such device; choose your recipe; and craft the equipment. You may also perhaps enhance it with an augmenting gem. Still, Rift's economy is robust, and you earn different sorts of currencies for performing different actions. You earn planarite for closing rifts and use it to buy specific goods. Gold and platinum are your standard currency, which is useful for standard items. You earn artisan marks by completing work orders and exchange them for recipes. Should you be on the hunt for new spaulders or a shiny sword, you're almost sure to find what you need at the auction house; conversely, if you put an item you've crafted up for auction, there's a good chance it will be quickly sold.
Rift may look much like other fantasy MMOGs, but there are still impressive sights to behold, such as a derelict castle looming above or a bustling hub city where mechanical mounts stand at the ready. The rifts are the standout feature, turning previously fertile fields into a demonic haven for the planar ogres that emerge. Some stiff animations put a slight damper on combat, but Rift looks good and runs well even on less-than-current hardware. The audio is as much a part of Rift's success as the visuals. A calling horn announces the imminent arrival of an invading force as the skies darken, instilling fear and excitement. When you approach a water rift, the noise of rushing liquid recalls a verdant waterfall, which provides a beautiful contrast to the abyssal fiends springing forth. Other rifts emit an unsettling drone that would make the legions of undead proud. Pounding drums kick battles off in style, as if setting the rhythm for your own quickening heartbeat. Certain spells and other effects sound more like muffled whispers than crackling displays of magic, but all in all, Rift's audio is all its own, unlike its many borrowed facets.
Telara's audiovisual beauty isn't the only reason to explore it, though it's certainly a major contributing factor. There are also artifacts strewn about the world that are represented by luminescent specks you glimpse under wagons, along paths, and at the top of mountain peaks. You can turn in completed collections for a reward, giving you a good reason to inspect every nook and cranny of that nearby crypt. It's a shame that when you pass by a glimmer, you can't tell if you've already collected it. (How wonderful would it have been for the game not to display artifacts already in your collection?) Exploration also brings one of Rift's minor irritations to the forefront: the number of monsters packed into a single area and the frequency with which they spawn. You might want to run to a rift but find it impossible not to draw the ire of a wandering ghost or three. This flaw is aggravated by the fact that even monsters many levels below you will attack and give chase.
There are other tiny irritants, such as a glitch that can have you receiving a "no line of sight" message when trying to attack a target that clips into the geometry. That most of Rift's irritants are so trivial is a testament to its stability. This is an online RPG in which you spend your time rushing from rift to rift, completing quests, and joining your guildmates in dungeon runs--not checking the official forums to see when the servers will be coming back up or wondering how long it will be before the auction house is added. If you're burnt out on fantasy MMOGs, you may not be able to look past Rift's more derivative aspects. But if you seek a comfortable blend of the old and the new, this is the online RPG you should be playing.