Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning | Preview Weekend 1 & 2, Open Beta, Levels 1-21

I've had some distance now to try and look back at my days in WAR objectively. I don't claim to be critiquing the whole game, just the first twenty levels or so, before the leveling pace dropped off enough to halt my apparent progression. This is to be a critique of the game, so if you're looking for fuzzy bunnies and rainbows... why are you even reading a post about WAR?

There were a few things that WAR did that set it well ahead of the curve. The first, and probably least obvious, is that each stat had a dual function. This didn't entirely prevent dump stats, nor create a viable mechanism for balanced characters, but it was a step in the right direction. Second to that is combat capable, if not overpowered, healers. It's really a shame that the player base fell into pointless bickering and shortsighted complaints of players not doing their job. It would have been an entirely different game, in many ways, if the player base had instead solidified behind their healers making them the comparative rock stars of the game, rather than the tank as is usual of cooperative dungeon play.

Despite their having excellent stylistic feel for their environments, WAR, ironically, lacks much sense of warfare beyond a few exceptions, all in PvE. Warfare is governed by a few simple rules, it's the effort to place out a significant force of trained and equipped personnel into an enemy territory to take and hold points of logistical and tactical importance, or the same but in defense of your own territory. Skirmishing experts, like the elves, seemed to make sense, with their prolific use of ambushes and attacks along the flanks... but pretty much every other army seemed to be of the opinion that throwing out warriors one at a time would somehow turn the tide of battle against an organized foe. In fact, if not for the player's godlike status, and the AI's relative stupidity, every battle the player engages in should result in their side's complete and utter defeat. What makes this a true failing of the game is that it spawns from a war game, even if a particularly tactical one.

Before I move on, the only ways to fix that particular failing is to implement a system of logistics. WAR was remarkably lacking on the logistical front, with severe limits on crafting, but also without any significant sinks to encourage organization. While an organized war band may be more effective, a disorganized war band doesn't really face any significant challenges so long as it can outnumber it's opponents, and they are also disorganized. With the proliferation of pick-up war bands and general disinterest in open RvR this was hardly an uncommon feat. This would often cause the teeter totter effect where one side would be forced back into their static defenses, but then gain so much power from their defenses as to then wear down the opponents morale and allow them to safely wait out a shift in numbers. In a more logistical system, each side would have to make other considerations, for example would it really be of any worth to wait outside an opponents camp and be worn down, when moving your lines of defense back to the strategically important points would allow for greater tactical flexibility, but also allow you to maintain a larger overall force and better defenses. Likewise, would it be wise to fall back to in-place defenses if you were then to consume the logistical advantage that would allow you to attack. Much like in real warfare, logistical considerations add a significant amount of planning and down time, but they also add weight and decrease the uncanny nature that surrounds wanton skirmish warfare.

The classes in WAR rarely seem to scale well. Their specialties and usefulness seems to undergo mercurial shifts from bracket to bracket, or even level to level. Back lines dps becomes front lines dps, becomes crowd control, then finally shifts back to dps. A front line healer goes from healing/buffing for the front line, to becoming a veritable tank in itself, to a slightly longer lasting front line dps, to a back line healer. None of this would be so significant if a player could choose to stop leveling and settle in a bracket they feel comfortable with, but instead it's inevitable that a character will go through all of those permutations, and possibly even more in the twenty levels I hadn't had a chance to investigate. Overall, these strange twists serve to punish a player for leveling, as they find out that the role they have spent the last 8-10 levels learning to play is suddenly no longer viable, or is simply so much less effective that they are forced from being on top of their game to being on the bottom of their game.

I'm not going to get into a debate on the good and bad points of a mud inherited loot based system. I'm sure there are plenty of those out there, somewhere. I will simply say that WAR does, as it must, suffer from all the problems inherent in such a system. Likewise it does, as it must, benefit from all the advantages of such a system.

To close the "bad" points segment, I'd like to briefly touch on Richard Bartle's comment, "I've already played Warhammer, it was called World of Warcraft". I'm sure I've already publicly stated that in general I agree with him, but it's worth repeating. WAR and WoW are incredibly similar games, with most of the differences being in the fine detailing. It isn't even so much comparable to saying that a pair of chairs are alike, so much as saying a pair of finely crafted Victorian rocking chairs are alike. Sure to someone who spends all day in one and then moves to the other, or to a true connoisseur, they seem very different, but to most sane outside observers... their both finely crafted Victorian rocking chairs, and it isn't really that important which one you find yourself sitting in, if any at all. (After all rocking chairs may not be your thing.) But also to add my own thoughts on it, the problem I see is that the two are uncomfortably similar in a fashion which tells me many decisions were made because "it's an MMO, that's just how it's done." This can be seen in the UI, the skills set-up, and the dungeon system. There have been many good examples of how to break from all of those, some of them would have worked especially well with their flavor of game and setting. For instance a Guild Wars style mission system, balanced more around war bands, would have been a better selection than their limited dungeons in most cases. It would have allowed them to fill in the story better, as well as allowed the players to interact more with the iconic armies of the game, such as bloodthirsters, war bosses, and steam tanks.

Finally, I can't talk about WAR without bringing up the public quest system. It is one of those sublime systems that keeps the player wondering why anyone hadn't done it before. While I'll admit the balancing on some needed some work, there was a certain charm to either pre-arranging a group for them, or just picking up a group of random stragglers to complete one. Their level design and placing of them was also generally quite good, both space efficient and relatively intuitive.

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