Rift's beta events: we like what we're seeing

Little did we know what was coming!

Rift's been letting players test its beta in doses--small time windows where the servers open and players flood in until they're kicked out. This past weekend, the fifth beta event brought thousands of players in for their Rift fix. I've been traipsing through Telera for all five of beta sessions, testing solo questing, PvP, dungeons--pretty much everything I can get my hands on. There's more to Rift than meets the eye (although that part's pretty great too). Read on to see how this fantasy MMORPG is shaping up so far.

A lot of the beta events are designed to force you to test a specific area of the game--for example, my first experience in beta three was centered around one of the starter quest hubs. The I was, lining up a screenshot of my wife's character when suddenly the sky turned purple and large rifts started to form everywhere. I didn't realize it until I looked at the screenshot, but I had just captured the start of a Rift invasion--one of the most exciting elements of the game!

An invasion is when multiple rifts open up in an area as a massive NPC army teleports in to try and conquer the whole zone (read more info in our in-depth launch day guide in our April 2011 issue, which'll hit newsstands the day Rift launches--March 1, 2011). We quickly ran to the site of the closest battle and joined the fight that was raging against an Iron Fortress War Golem. Players and NPCs alike battled this huge giant as it swung it's massive arms, sending players flying back hundreds of feet. It was a very cool sight to see 40 players, recover their footing and rush back together in one big pack to continue fighting the golem.

The beauty of the rift

It was amazing to see the sky for the entire zone turn a malevolent purple when the rift opened. This time it was from the plane of Death--Fire, Life, and the other planes turn the sky different shades. Rift's world almost always looks marvelous, thanks to the flexible graphics engine that Trion is using for the game. In another beta event (this one focusing on dungeons), I was simply blown away by the snow effect that buffeted my group as we battled our way up the side of the mountain in the Realm of the Fae, a low level instance in the Guardian starter zone.

Like WoW, the graphics engine is designed to scale down to accomodate less capable machines. With a quick click of a check box, players can set the engine to a low-quality render, and play the game with a decent frame rate on a relatively old computer. And while the graphics are great, w-qualitythe gameplay mechanics are interesting enough that players can still have an enjoyable experience with the lo render--and havine the option to run the game at a less-pretty setting is always better than not being able to play it at all.

The brains of the class system

Over the course of the five betas so far, I've experimented to an almost obsessive degree with the soul system--Rift's talent tree progression that allows players to pick how their character will grow. But it's not really fair to call it a "talent tree" like most players are familiar with (i.e., WoW's style). There are four callings in the game--Warrior, Rogue, Cleric and Mage--and each of those has eight souls available to it. At any given time, a player can select three of those souls to invest points into.

After you've picked your souls, your work's just begun! Each soul is divided into two distinct sections: the Branches, and the Roots. The Branches are your typical talent tree system, where players spend points that they receive as they level. As players spend more points in a particular Soul, they work their way up the Branches, gaining more and more powerful abilities and great modifiers to their abilities such as reductions in cool downs or increases in damage done by a particular ability. These are the kinds of choices we've all seen before.

The Roots system will feel familiar to Warhammer veterans (although it functions differently), and will likely be a fairly new concept for a lot of MMOers. As players spend points in a tree, they're automatically progressed down through a linear series of abilities called Roots that are given to players at certain milestones. For example, in the Justicar tree, a player automatically gets two Root abilities just by selecting the soul, and after the player has spent two more points in that soul, they receive a new healing ability. Add four more points, and you get another new ability, and so on. As they spend more points in the soul, the point gap between abilities increases.

Players are also able to pick where they spend their Soul points between their three active souls. They can choose to spread their points out amongst all three, or they can focus completely on one, gaining only the default abilities that come with their other two souls. The possibilities for how you can build your character are pretty limitless. Players will have to learn if it's worth going all the way up one Soul tree to get their top-tier abilities, or if their playstyle would benefit more from having a wider breadth of abilities (none of which may be quite as powerful as those maximum tier abilities).

Fighting the namesake rifts

Beta three was all about testing rifts (even though they'd been there all along). The event featured quite a few full-scale invasions, which were all adrenaline-pumping, heart-thumping rides through non-stop combat for those who took part, and a great way for Trion Worlds to show off the dynamic nature of rifts.

As server messages flashed all over the screen to announce that invasions were starting, players were quick to form themselves into raids to take on the planar invaders. If players were successful in taking out the rift, it'd close and disappear. But if not, the invaders would get more bold, call in more reinforcements and start spreading further into the land, attacking cities and quest hubs.

Of course, it was a lot easier to form groups to take out the rifts in the latest beta event, because an open group system had been added for players choosing to take part in the battles against the rifts. Players group together to beat back waves of enemies at the rift location in a timed event similar to Warhammer's party questing system.

I've yet to get tired of battling rifts with other players, but sometimes saw them as a bit of a nuisance and a distraction from what I was currently trying to accomplish. I sometimes found myself ignoring a Rift forming next to me, or choosing not to take part in the invasions, so that I could wrap up the quest I was on. I know the developers want to foster an environment where the unexpected can happen, but sometimes I just want to wrap up a quest before I go to bed, instead of getting jumped by crazy zombies! It was never difficult to avoid rifts when I didn't want to fight them, however--most of the time I could simply run around them.

Dungeon stomping

The Scarlet Gorge zone was recently added to the beta, and is the first zone shared by the Defiants and the Guardians (the rest were exclusive to one faction or the other). It's desert landscape reminds me of Arizona and New Mexico, with rocky valleys and dramatic stone outcroppings dotting the landscape. My favorite part of the zone is Foul Cascade, an open-sky dungeon available to players of both factions.

It's a refreshing change to look up and see the night sky instead of a grungy dungeon ceiling as we fought our way through the instance. As we moved forward, we noticed a full-blown Death Rift in all its undead glory in our path. It was a challenge toget through--the whole group had to use crowd control, healing and target marking to make sure that we didn't wipe on trash pulls, but it was fun. So far all of the dungeons I've run (four different ones), have all struck a surprisingly good balance between challenge and entertainment. You won't clear these dungeons with silent, AoE-spam PuG groups.

There are two more beta events scheduled before the game's launch on March 1. If you're interested in joining me in 'em, jump over to the official website and signup for the beta !